The writing of Credo Mutwa is breathtaking in its breadth, depth and detail. His magnum opus – Indaba, My Children is a work of genius, inspiration and ancestral intervention. This work of genius is multiple books in one – but what makes it even more awe-inspiring is its multiple narratives that takes some genius to comprehend.
Spanning millenia, Mutwa’s Indaba, My Children is a work of mythology of ‘birth of creation’, planetary evolution, spiritual journey and it all culminates into a futuristic world that ends in annihilation.
At over 700-pages, complex storylines, overlapping plots of celestial beings intertwining with earthly mortals, Indaba, My Children is a wonder. This is not to say it is overwhelming or confusing. Instead, I think it shows the genius of Mutwa. Mutwa categorically calls this divine knowledge – and those of us who grew up on grandparent’s ditshomo, know that ditshomo and myths carry a lot of truth, lessons and knowledge. It will be a folly to write off Indaba, My Children as a work of fiction and nothing else.
It will also be equally unfortunate to read it the same way that you would read a biography of the planet as if written by a John Smith.
The grain of truth in Indaba, My Children does not lie in the fact that the author say it is so. It lies in the fact that as an isanusi – the grandmaster of healers, sangomas and diviners – Mutwa has no reason to lie. His fantastic worlds are not believable to our young, immature ears. His intertwining plots are improbable because we have not even begun to fathom the intensity of the myth of creation as told by Africans. The comparison with Greek mythology would not only be unfortunate and fall short; but it will also miss Mutwa’s critical point and purpose of his writing – to let us in on the deepest knowledge of the ancestral world!
When done well, poetry is a link to other worlds. It can be a language of the ancestors and of the spirit. This is why when we – Africans – try to trace our roots and ancestry, we ‘speak in poetry, almost incantational.’ It is this poetry that roots us to our ancient narratives and to other realms! Mutwa flexes his ancient wisdom by opening his magnum opus with a series of epic poems that string together the intricacy of the story about to unfold.
Indaba opens with an epic poem that serves as the summary of the entire book. The epic tells of a young planet that comes into being. Then he lets a big surprise out – the world came into being because of a woman – not a man! Myths of the world have always highlighted this fact – but the most well-known western mythologies have always foregrounded men as if they brought themselves into being.
Mutwa’s poetry is sublime as it is poignant. It is a clear indicator of the scale and magnitude of Mutwa’s imagination. It is a window into the vista of his incredible worlds and myths that are as old as humanity’s consciousness. These are the worlds and myths that stand at the precipice of the beginning of culture. “Culture was born of the imagination, and the imagination – the imagination as we know it – came into being when our species descended from our progenitor, Homo erectus, and, infused with consciousness, began a journey that would carry it to every corner of the habitable world” says Wade Davis. Mutwa’s work takes us back to this ‘infusion with consciousness’ of our species and it is; in many ways – culture (and its practice, or at least conscious awareness of it) that also separate us from other species and our pre-human ancestors.
Mutwa’s Indaba, My Children has nine poems in all and by their sheer length, stories and themes can be a book by themselves. In This I Choose, the narrator’s voice is sombre and cautionary – choosing to sit at the feet of the ancestors and the foremothers of yore:
There I shall sit before Ubabamkhulu/
Who shall recite to me the Tales of Yore/
There I shall kneel before Gegulu/
And hear legends of Those-that-lived-Before/
This is the spirit – the marrow of Indaba, My Children – this proverbial sitting before Gegulu and Babamkhulu. Indaba, My Children is a sacred tale older than time itself and one that Mutwa says put his life in danger by repeating it to our naughty and often unhearing ears. In this poem, he choses this ‘sitting’ with the elders instead of “a crooner’s voice” or the “Demon-wail of the pennywhistle or tea-chest guitar.” This is to say, Mutwa chooses the world of the elders (morality/death) compared to the world of the young (pennywhistlers and musicians of the time/life). He appoints the world of strict living, of punishment and consequences in the realm of the elders, than living a mortal life of debauchery and discos. Of course this could also be the Narrator-I instead of Mutwa’s choices himself. But his personal and mortal life points us in a different direction: that he indeed chose the way of his ancestors and gegulus!
In The Sacred Story of The Tree of Life the poet/narrator/voice takes us on an epic journey of the myth of creation. Myth! Myth is the product of the human imagination and it gives birth to culture. Without myth and its differing flavours of narrative/narration, mankind would lack language, religion, belief and humanity itself. In fact, without mythology, we would believe in nothing and this state of ‘nothing-belief’ would be the beginning of chaos and anarchy. The point of mythology is not that it should be believed! The point of mythology is that it should exist.
Mythology points us to the beginning of things – and because we were not there at the beginning, how can we (dis)prove it.
I have always been fascinated with myth-making and Grandmaster Credo Mutwa wrote the ultimate template for how mythology must be written. This is not to say myth-making – the ultimate form of production of culture (because of its requirements of strict originality) – is not a linear dialectical process of ‘man, nature and society.’ This will be too Marxist as Santiago Rodriguez Guerrero-Strachan suggests. Instead, I think Grandmaster Mutwa allows his imagination to borrow from all facets, elements and surfaces of influence that leads to production of culture. It is very attractive then to look at Mutwa’s work using another Euro-Western frame if the Marxist or Darwinistic ‘scientific mythology’ of evolution fails. The second lens is that of the Greek structure or even progression of the struggle between good and evil. A closer reading of Indaba quickly turns the Greek structure and progression on its head because Mutwa’s heros quickly become monsters and villains; they change their ways in the most unexpected ways. This is to say in short that nothing is predictable in the trajectory of Mutwa’s stories.
Some have criticised Mutwa’s poetry for its ‘traditional’ style, language or its prose. His language is sanitary, upright, precise and very Victorian! His symbolism is strong and brave if not new. And this is what I personally look for in poetry – the element of the ‘new’ in language: a new metaphor, new visual image, new compass of saying old things new! This is poetry. The comparison with the Greek and Old Classic literature is unfortunate but somehow inescapable because this the foundation of our education.
Another impressive feat in Mutwa’s poetry is his bold employment of oral tradition. The tales that he writes about are not written anywhere and none of us would even dream of them. They are ancient tales that sit behind the traditional education of iisanusi and healers of Africa. They are the rationale for names, uses, incantations and processes of healing and accessing the power of natural medicine and realms of power.
In The Sacred Story of The Tree of Life Mutwa traces the beginning of the ‘universe’. I got the impression that Mutwa was keenly aware that while this is the tale of one universe – our universe – there are other universes that may have similar or completely different progressions of birth or processes of beginning! In this poem, River Time and Nothingness are introduced and in no time at all (the figure of speech is intended), they are engaged in a strange mating process that leads to the ‘birth’ of Fire as a tiny spark! At this point – time is immaterial; one year can be a second and a millennium can be as long as a minute. With this inconsequential concept of time, the unraveling mystery of the universe comes to being. Mutwa always argued that this ‘birth’ of the universe, was not a once-off event, that the universe (or multiverse) is/are still being born even today. This is a keen understanding of the dynamics of cosmology. The scientists among us will see this in parallel with the modern debate of the planetary bodies.
This keen knowledge of the planetary bodies – their origin and state(s) – is confirmed by another man of intense traditional knowledge; far younger than Credo Mutwa. Zulumathabo Zulu is a scientist, engineer and sangoma. He makes an interesting argument and it goes something along these lines.
Basotho (or the brown ones, Africans) have always known about the stars, their planetary existence and movements. I asked: “But how?” They certainly did not have telescopes. His answer stopped me dead in my tracks!
“You think there is only one way of knowing? That without telescopes or science, the world did not know?” his eyes sharp and piercing as if through my soul!
Then he narrated a short and simple tale! When Basotho (Sesotho speakers) say ‘o tla bona toosa le madinyane a yona’ what did they mean? I smirked because this was my father’s favourite line to scare some manners into me. It means you are about to get a good whack or such a serious beating that you will see ‘stars’. “That is right.”
Toosa is Sesotho for planet Jupiter. Madinyane (offspring) is its 69 moons. “Now…” he turned to me “how did Basotho know know that there is such a celestial body with madinyane – moons around it or in its orbit?” I was stumped. It should not surprise you that this knowledge comes from someone who recieved training similar to Mutwa’s.
It became clear to me then that African healing and knowledge systems are intricately aligned to the knowledge of the planetary and celestial configurations. This makes Mutwa’s narration of the myth of creation not only believable, but grounded in some well-established, but equally well-hidden knowledge.
This then means we need to read Credo Mutwa with two (or three) intentions. One; his writing is founded in ancient, divine knowledge that is not for mere mortals. Two, we do not have to believe it for it to be true. In fact, mythology cares nothing for the truth!
The truth is a lie in the face of mythology.
Another gem of Mutwa’s writing is his rational of the names of things, places and people that are around us even today. He incorporates Thaba Zimbi (or Taba-Zimbi) at the beginning of this mythology.. He calls its “the eternal Iron Mountain.” The metaphor is clear – zimbi give us the root for ‘insimbi’ (iron), while ‘taba’ or ‘thaba’ is a mountain! Nkulunkulu is ‘the Highest of the High’ and our current Zulu language still uses this and with the same linguistic rationale. Zima Mbje is the root origin of Zimbabwe, while Nelesi – a star – has the linguistic traces of Nyeleti or Naledi!
This is the full scope of Indaba – it is the rationale for our language(s), nations, places, story of creation and things. It is the creative, imperative of our existence! It is the reason for our veneration of things we venerate.
It is in The Sacred Story of The Tree of Life that the typical error of judgement of the first beings is committed! The great Goddess Ma desires a partner and instead of a stud, Nkulunkulu The Great Spirit – in its infinite wisdom grants her a wish with an astonishing surprise. It gives her the Tree of Life as a partner. There is no prize for guessing the end of such a pairing!
The metal-eating goddess met her ghastly mate and after consummating their partnership – in a manner far from consent – she was hit with a large boulder that still orbits our planet as the moon. And this is why the moon is such a symbol of love and forlorn longing for lovers in our stories and in real lives.
The force and presence of the moon has a real, physical and metaphysical effect on our beings!
Oh missile which through the starry sky/
At fleeting Ma the Tree of Life let fly,/
Shed still on earth thy heatless silver light/
And let all things feel/ Love’s consuming might/
Shoot burning darts into the lion’s soul/
Make him forget to stalk the zebra foal/
In Behold the First Born our green planet comes into being together with the “first mighty nation of flesh and blood” from a thousand years of labour of birth of the great Goddess Ma. Shortly after, the Tree of Life also started growing greens that grew as soon as they hit the earth with heavy thuds and thumps! And all of this earthly beauty was soon destroyed by Efa, the Spirit of Total Extinction!
The poet tells us that after this extinction, some animals remained while reptiles and insects grew from the roots of the Tree of Life, covering with a new song that may soon “trail into oblivion.”
History’s sun had risen, and still shines today
But it will no doubt set one day – for’er!
In The Race that Died, the poet – or “the traitor most foul” tells us of great peace
in the sky –
peace on the forest-veiled plains
This peace would be finally crushed by the birth of Za-Ha-Rrellel, the deformed child of Nelesi (or Kei-Lei-Si). Za-Ha-Rrellel became the maker of incredibly terrible and fearsome but living weapons (what we would call robots or AI).
With her mother’s love, Nelesi loved Za-Ha-Rrellel as deformed as he was. She refused to kill him or give him to man-eating Kaa-U-La birds that had to bless or kill every newborn. When she realised her error, it was too late as she was killed by Za-Ha-Rrellel’s metal-flesh dithokolosi!
After an epic fight with the swarm of Kaa-U-La birds with the metal-flesh tokoloshes, Zaa-Ha-Rellel won the battle and the race of the red-skinned First People died with them!
The aftermath of this epic battle is continued in Thy Doom, Oh Amarire! Za-Ha-Rrellel became the supreme leader of the new nation. This poem brings the writing of Credo Mutwa full circle. It is a magic realist fiction of its time and futuristic tale of the past! In it, Za-Ha-Rrellel’s tokolosis are an artificial intelligence that serves at the whim of humanity and things could be done by humans, just by wishing them into existence! The poem says that Zaa-Ha-Rrellel even gave these people the power to wish food into their stomachs because even chewing foods was deemed too laborious for them. The AI was that important and central to their lives – almost the same way that it is today!
The Amarire or the red-skinned people became a miserable, lazy lot. When the terrible flood – sent by the creators; First Goddess Ma and Tree of Life – hit the land, the Amarire asked their AI and other newly-created creatures to build them rafts and create a fake sun!
The final instalment of the ‘life’ of Zaa-Ha-Rrellel is in The Last Sin of Zaa-Ha-Rrellel. Welcome Odu, the big hulking brute of the Bjaauni, Lowest of the Low – creatures created by Za-Ha-Rrellel from pulped scraps or remains of other things and beasts.
In this poem, the villain Za-Ha-Rrellel, intends to challenge the creator of life; to become the master of creation himself. And lo and behold; his flesh-metal dithokolosi succeed and capture the Mother of Creation. But as they watch her form on the floor – captured and bound – they do not realise that the very act of seeing this supreme being is actually killing them.
The metaphors of our current world and its dynamics are only too clear. And the reference to AI is not symbolic, but a visceral commentary on the future of tech-driven society that seeks knowledge beyond what propels the noble ideals of humanity forward. It is our obsession with the pursuit of knowledge for reasons that will only bring humanity very close to annihilation!
It was this annihilation of the Amarire that led to the rise of the Bjaauni, led by the terrible Odu. Zaa-Ha-Rrelle dies but Mother Creator leaves two human beings alive. Unfortunately Zaa-Ha-Rrellel had infected the two remaining humans with ambition and cruelty.
I think it is fair to mention that the poetry of Credo Mutwa is exquisite, functional and narrative-propelling in a compelling way; even though it is not his main craft. It is steeped in prose and it is a foundation of his myth-making. The nine poems that open Indaba, My Children lay the foundation for the narrative that follows. And it is only fitting that the epic story of this proportion is preceded by the poetry and prose of equal if not more elegant magnitude.
This prologue of poetry opens a new world of magic realism, futuristic writing and ancestral knowledge that Mkhulu Credo Mutwa delivers with poignancy and great import.